“First” Ascents for Everyone!

Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans
Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans

The world of climbing is all about firsts. First climb of the grade, first free ascent, first female ascent, first ascent in winter… . To do a thing before anyone else is to become a glorious human bullet point in the history books — or history blogs, as the case may be today.

But damn, being first is hard! Not everyone can be first — that’s why it’s called “first.” After that, well, the scrap heap of history is full of unmemorable people who did things second, third, fourth, or seventy-sixth. As Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

This state of affairs is all well and good for the Sharmas and DiGiulians, the Messners and the Hills of the world, but where does that leave the rest of us, who dwell unexceptionally in the middle of the bell curve? Nowhere special, that’s for sure.

Luckily, with a little creative thinking, there is hope for us all.

First, consider what makes you wonderful and unique, like a snowflake. Consider your physiology, your skill sets and perspectives, the clothes you wear to climb, your cultural background, etc. Therefore, it should be no great challenge to find a way in which your ascent can be the first of its kind — a qualified FA, if you will. Below are just a few examples. Can you think of any others?

FCA (First Costumed Ascent) – You might recall a scene in the old Cooper Roberts climbing flick Sessions in which Ana Burgos climbs some boulder in Hueco Tanks while wearing a rabbit costume. This was almost certainly the problem’s FBSA (First Bunny Suit Ascent). Similarly, the late Kurt Albert made the FLCA (First Lederhosen Clad Ascent) of Devil’s Crack, in the Frakenjura, and Ethan Pringle made the FSOA (First Spiderman Outfit Ascent) of Lost in Translation (5.13), a limestone multi-pitch on the Great Arch in Getu, China. Thousands of FCAs (not to mention their opposite, First Nude Ascents) await. In fact, I know a friend who has a banana suit you can borrow if you’re interested…

FTFSA (First Tripping Free Solo Ascent) – The late Major League Baseball player Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr., claims to have pitched a perfect game while under the influence of LSD. Along similar lines, legend holds that a certain Gunks climber showed up at the Lost City area tripping his balls off and proceeded to free solo Survival of the Fittest, a powerful 5.13 with a jumble of big pointy rocks for a landing. Although not recommended for a whole slew of legal, ethical, and safety reasons, many FTFSAs remain to be claimed the world over. On the other hand, FSAs — First Stoned Ascents — have pretty much all been ticked at this point (sorry, dudes).

FMURA (First Most Undesirable Route Ascent) – In the Tao de Ching, Lao Tzu writes: “True goodness is like water. … It goes right to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way.” So can the crafty FA-hunter find what he or she is looking for by going straight to the lowest, chossiest, most tick-and-spider-infested pile in an area and proceeding to climb. Enjoy!

FSTAA (First Shorter Than Average Ascent) – Shorter than average climbers (≤5′ 9″ for men and ≤5′ 4″ for women) will often use height as an excuse for failure on a route. Such excuses rarely hold water, as many of the world’s best climbers fall into this category and most rock climbs offer a variety of holds for short- and tall-person beta alike. However, it is true that certain climbs are known for their “reachy” nature. A prime example is Dogleg, in the Red River Gorge. For those six feet or taller, it is appropriately graded at 5.12a. But for the 5′ 5″ Mike Doyle, who made the FA of Lucifer, the Red’s first 5.14c, Dogleg‘s reach-crux was a serious challenge. After sending, he logged it on sendage.com with the note, “1000th attempt, finally stuck the dyno. Some people say 6c-/7a+, I say 8c+ :)” With typical Canadian modesty, Doyle suggests his ascent might not be the FSTAA: “For all I know, Lynn Hill and Katie Brown tag teamed flash ascents of this beast.”

FNCSA (First Non-Climbing Shoe Ascent) – Before 1980 and the invention of sticky rubber climbing shoes, pretty much everything was a FNCSA. But in the modern era of climbing, the undeniable advantages of skin-tight footwear with super-sticky soles means that few new routes or problems get done in sneakers, flip-flops, unshod feet, etc. The world is your oyster here, but first a tip: train on a campus board and pull-up bar to prepare for those footloose moments when your painted wooden kletterclogs refuse to stick.

FPPA and FGA (First Pre-Pubescent and First Geriatric Ascent) – For the very young and very old among us, simply doing a climb at whatever age you happen to be might qualify as an FA of sorts. But don’t count on it — the roster of wee tikes and old farts getting after it grows longer every day.

F[Insert Your Ailment Here]A – Erik Weihenmayer, Hugh Herr, Craig DeMartino, Ronnie Dickson — all guys who climb harder than you despite facing challenges like blindness or missing limbs. Their FAAs (Fist Adaptive Ascents) are the stuff of legend and not for the average climber I’m addressing here. For folks like us, there are far-more accessible FAs for the taking, such as the FEDA (First Explosive Diarrhea Ascent), the FAUA (First Alopecia Universalis Ascent), or the FNAA (First Nut Allergic Ascent). Are you one of the 6.974 billion people on planet Earth who suffer from a physiological or psychological ailment, impediment, or challenge? Then there is a qualified FA out there waiting for you. To quote Brad Pitt in Troy: “Take it; it’s yours!”

[Vid] Nothing Flat About Flatanger

Ethan Pringle recently posted this video in which he climbs the first ascent of a new 5.14c called The Eye of Odin in Norway’s massive Flatanger cave (aka Hanshelleren, according to this Swedish blog). You can read Pringle’s very extensive blog about his time in Norway here.

This granite (?) cave has been getting a lot of attention in the past year or so. In fall of 2011, Jorg Verhoeven put up a 5.14d there called Nordic Flowerwhich he writes about in this blog. I recall talking to a Swedish climber about Hanshelleren back in 2008, so it’s certainly been on the radar for a while, but I think the sea-carved formation is just so big and steep that it has intimidated local climbers until recently. In an interview with Björn Pohl, Magnus Midtbø guesses the cave is 1,000 feet wide, and 500 feet tall, adding, “It makes Santa Linya look tiny!” One blogger describes climbing in the area as “like being close to a nasty animal or a dangerous place.” Perhaps Chris Sharma’s 2008 ascent of Jumbo Love helped break down the perfectly reasonable mental barrier associated with neck-sappingly steep, 250-foot long super-routes.

More eye candy: in December of last year, this cool little video went up, showing Magnus Midtbø and Dani Andrada trying Nordic Flower.

Despite the fact that I’d probably be projecting the warmups in the big cave, I’d love to visit Flatanger. It’s basically a small fishing village — beautiful, idyllic, serene — with a futuristic crag in its midst. Plus, Norway has the highest per-capita coffee consumption levels in the world, which makes it my kind of place. It also sounds like there is more climbing nearby, and a glance at Google Maps (see screenshot, below) shows a region made up almost entirely of rock. I can only imagine this isn’t the only such formation in Norway. In the interview linked to above, Midtbø mentions seven similar caves in the area. Assuming you climb 5.13 or harder, formations like these could make Norway a more palatable climbing destination for those who have previously shied away because of the wet climate.

Satellite image of Flatanger, Norway, and the surrounding region
Satellite image of Flatanger, Norway, and the surrounding region. Lotsa rock out there…